Art Deco: Exotic and Moderne
The exotic touched every aspect of contemporary life. Motifs such as lotus flowers, tropical birds and animals, dancing girls and native figures became commonplace. Tropical woods and exotic materials such as ebony, ivory, sharkskin and lacquer gave luxurious and sensuous effects.
The vogue for 'l'art nègre', which celebrated black African culture, exemplified the widespread taste for the exotic. It encompassed the fine and decorative arts, fashion, film, photography, music and dance.
In the world of the cabaret the American entertainer Josephine Baker embodied the exotic 'primitive'. She first performed her erotically charged Danse Sauvage in Paris in 1925. It electrified audiences with its sophisticated fusion of the 'primitive' and modern black American music and dance. The show transformed Baker into an icon.
In the world of fashion and high style, the taste-makers Jacques Doucet, Jeanne Lanvin and Suzanne Talbot commissioned exotic designs for their Parisian homes. Jacques Doucet's apartment at Neuilly combined avant-garde art by Picasso and Modigliani with exotic Art Deco and ancient works from Africa and the East. These interiors represent a pinnacle of French Art Deco.
The most striking official use of the exotic was to be found in the International Colonial Exhibition, held in Paris in 1931. Its decorative schemes for the Musée des Colonies used an exoticized Art Deco to create a modern vision of the colonial enterprise.
By the late 1920s many designers had turned to abstract and geometric forms and decoration, drawn from the visual repertoire of the avant garde. British and American critics often used the terms 'Moderne', 'Jazz Moderne' or 'Zigzag Moderne' to characterize such work.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and ensuing Depression had a devastating effect on the luxury market. Many leading European Deco designers were hard hit. Increasingly, there was a demand for inexpensive consumer goods, which accelerated the move away from handcraft practice towards a modern aesthetic compatible with new materials and industrial production.
Chromed steel, aluminium, mirror, coloured glass and the new plastics - such as Bakelite and Catalin - became the favoured materials of the 1930s, replacing exotic woods, ivory and sharkskin. Inexpensive and adaptable, they could be made to emulate the decorative and sensuous surfaces typical of Deco in the 1920s but were suited to batch or mass production.
In the 1930s, the sparer decorative aesthetic and new materials of the Moderne were often coupled with an innovative use of lighting and reflective surfaces, whether in fashion design and photography or architecture and interior design.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Art Deco: 1910-1939', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 27 March - 20 July 2003.